The documentary series The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll, which first premiered on television in 1995, is given the DVD treatment in this new five-disc boxed set. All 10 of the series’ original episodes are included: “Rock ‘N’ Roll Explodes”, “Good Rockin’ Tonight”, “Britain Invades, America Fights Back”, “The Sounds of Soul”, “Plugging In”, “My Generation”, “Guitar Heroes”, “The ‘70s: Have a Nice Decade”, “Punk”, and “Up From the Underground”. The series offers a macrocosmic examination of rock music throughout the 20th century, from early legends like Muddy Waters and Elvis Presley up through the ‘90s “alternative” explosion of Nirvana and R.E.M.
Sadly, I was privileged to screen a mere two episodes of the series; therefore, I’m able to fairly comment only on “Guitar Heroes” and “The ‘70s”. (It’s somewhat ironic that scenes from This is Spinal Tap are included in both episodes, as the gregarious excesses of ‘70s stadium rockers and guitar slingers alike ring true in the mockumentary’s real-life counterparts.) “Guitar Heroes”, which briefly traces the evolution of the electric guitar from Les Paul’s original design, is perhaps more unintentionally absurd than the easy-target decadence of “The ‘70s”. “Guitar Heroes” sports a plethora of soundbites from some of the century’s household-name guitarists, ranging from shallow insight to downright nonsense. Pete Townshend calls the guitar “a weapon”, Bruce Springsteen describes its “specific smell”, Mark Knopfler confesses to falling asleep with his six-string and professing it “sexy as hell”, and Kiss’s Paul Stanley meets expectations by offering the most inane observation: the guitar is “an extension of what you’ve got between your legs”. Kiss: voted Best Misogynists by nine out of 10 drunken fans.
Serious props are handed out to legends like James Burton and Chuck Berry, but “Guitar Heroes” spends most of its time on the emergence of god-like players in the ‘60s/‘70s and their subsequent legacy. As a result, there’s lots of footage of Dire Straits, the Who, Led Zeppelin, Cream, and of course, Jimi Hendrix. No new revelations here, as we’re re-told the creation stories of Townshend’s windmill, Jimmy Page’s bowed improvisations, and the British Invasion’s part in bringing notoriety back to American blues musicians. There’s loads of concert footage throughout, but as with all the episodes in the series, live clips are infuriatingly interrupted by the parade of talking heads. So while there are fabulous clips of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s famous El Macombo show, the Rolling Stones on the BBC, and a young Dire Straits knocking out “Sultans of Swing”, they’re incomplete snippets.
“The 70’s” episode puts its artists up on soapboxes to beat their chests and lay claim to the decade’s trends and successes. (Tellingly, no one wants to take the fall for disco.) “I started the ‘70s, for Chrissakes!” Chrissie Hynde humbly asserts at the episode’s start. Various musicians recall such notables as the studio freedoms that the ‘70s provided, the self-destructive indulgences to accompany stadium-sized fame, the introduction of the synthesizer, disco’s robotic invasion, and Springsteen’s last-minute rock salvation in the form of marathon performances. We get a broad overview of heavy metal’s beginnings (Zeppelin, Black Sabbath), soul, funk and reggae (Stevie Wonder, Sly, P-Funk, Bob Marley), immodest theatrics (Kiss, Alice Cooper), and studio experimentation (Pink Floyd, Queen, Bowie/Eno). Most interesting is the section on the corporatization of the music industry that took hold in the decade. Todd Rundgren laments the labels’ increasing disinterest in “fringe artists”, resulting in the business world’s capitalizing on chartbusters like Frampton Comes Alive!. The runaway success of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is invoked when describing the labels’ increasing concern with retail results over artistic value. Surprisingly, Peter Frampton intelligently bemoans a shift in focus, from writing for himself to writing while anticipating an audience’s needs. It’s an unfortunate reality that rings even more true today.
“If it wasn’t for Bruce Springsteen, we may have gone in a scary direction,” says handlebar mustached Jeff Baxter at “The 70’s”’ end. Speak of the devil: let’s not forget Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, onetime guitarist for Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers and oddly, a defense analyst for the current Bush administration (a subtle reminder that many ‘70s rockers grew into staunch Republicans following the disillusion of the ‘60s). His ubiquitous presence serves as the series’ go-to guy. Call him Professor Skunk, the all-knowing sage of musicology… and missile schematics. When in doubt, the producers pad the documentary with more of Baxter’s seemingly endless interview. What would Skunk do? Just ask The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll.
As these two episodes makes clear, The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll takes on a rather abysmal subject. Surely everyone will complain of a particular artist’s exclusion from the series; a certain predominance of backlash is to be expected for a documentary that attempts to cover so much ground. I, for one, can’t believe that “The 70’s” doesn’t touch on Frank Zappa (though a few interviewees mention him), Curtis Mayfield, or Randy Newman. Ahh, that’s the nature of the beast, then. The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll is about the big picture, a further canonization of all the same folks you hear on classic rock radio every weekend. Those who know virtually nothing about rock music may find lots to learn here; those who have followed rock and roll their entire lives will find it to be of passing interest, but more likely a really long instance of déjà vu.